Alongside the Divine Comedy, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is my favorite piece of medieval writing, and it’s my favorite because it’s beautiful. That might surprise those who are only familiar with the text for the so-called “ontological argument,” the arguments of the second and third chapters that demonstrate not only that God exists but that He cannot be conceived not to exist. The argument is 100% correct and thus deeply frustrating to those who would like not to believe in God, thus often mocked and parodied and rarely actually contemplated,* but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to try to describe at least a sliver of the sublimity of Anselm’s writing and to hint at why it ends with the joys of heaven.
The Proslogion starts with a sort of spiritual emptiness. No matter where we look, God does not appear. What’s more, study only leads us to the realization that God cannot in principle appear, cannot be understood, cannot be grasped. Yet He unquestionably is.
What to do in the face of this emptiness, sitting in our empty cell, staring at the blank wall and trying to hold the un-holdable? Starting from this absence of God, Anselm shows that all we need is one piece, a single understanding, and from the simple operation of our reason God emerges from the silence. His attributes become clear and finally we realize that the darkness is not darkness at all, but light. Light so bright that it shines dark, light so bright that we, our sight weakened by sin and crippled by ignorance, are blind. The highest realization is not catching sight of God, but the realization that it is God by which we see. We haven’t missed the forest for the trees, we’ve missed the light that envelops and pervades the leaves. The light which allows the forest to appear at all.
Constructed in this way, moments of the greatest spiritual dryness, of the utter absence of God, are transformed into the moments where God is closest. Our ignorance is transformed into knowledge, blindness into sight. That is the beauty of the Proslogion.
*see also: Pascal’s Wager
Reading in the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by the resonances between Psalm 138 and Anselm’s project in the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo. My read of Anselm here is shaped heavily by Burcht Pranger’s interpretation of the saint’s thought. Not coincidentally, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Pranger on Anselm, thus these ideas were percolating around my mind as I read the Psalms. During the Q&A, he was asked about the potential connections between Anselm’s poetics and the Divine Office, but unfortunately I had to leave before I could hear his answer.
Anyway, the psalm reads:
Whither can I go from thy spirit
whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou are there;
if I am prostrate in the abyss, thou art there.
It’s that final line, “in the abyss, thou art there” that strikes me. In seeking for the unum argumentum
of the Proslogion
, Anselm is reduced to despair in the absence of God, but it is precisely from this absence that God’s presence becomes manifest. It is the denial of the possibility of the unum argumentum
which reveals it, from the preface
Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found. But when I wished to exclude this thought altogether, lest, by busying my mind to no purpose, it should keep me from other thoughts, in which I might be successful; then more and more, though I was unwilling and shunned it, it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity. So, one day, when I was exceedingly wearied with resisting its importunity, in the very conflict of my thoughts, the proof of which I had despaired offered itself, so that I eagerly embraced the thoughts which I was strenuously repelling.
Similarly, in Cur Deus Homo:
The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ.
The necessity of the Incarnation becomes clear when our knowledge of it is denied, just as God’s attributes emerge from the unum argumentum precisely when we both deny Biblical revelation, proceeding sola ratione, and even the search for reason altogether. God is still there, in the abyss.
Unfortunately, I was unable in my admittedly cursory research to find the precise schedule of the hours which Anselm would have been reading, but in my breviary the Psalm is sung during Vespers on Friday. Vespers is traditionally associated with the removal of Christ from the Cross and it’s hard to imagine a moment of greater dejection, a deeper abyss, than that. Perhaps it’s at this very moment, a moment of utter despair and absence, that God’s presence shines through most clearly, if we have eyes to see
This line of thought has also led me to become convinced that Boethius is engaged in a fundamentally similar project in the Consolation, and I hope to post more thoughts on that sometime in the near future.